It’s Ground Hog Day again as I start my journey to visit Niue on July 27 and finish it on July 26, back across the International Date Line. The flight from Auckland, coming from Norfolk Island is horrendously bumpy. The captain apologises profusely for most of the journey, I grip the seats of my chair and the crew are ordered to stay in their seats, as we career through the skies. We landed in pouring rain, of course.
Locate my Rav 4 hire car - no map provided. Proceed to become totally lost for an hour, undertaking what I’ve been told is a five kilometre journey. My wipers make the most appalling noise, like screeching parrots and I can’t demist the screen. Eventually, end up at the hospital. I suppose it’s useful to know where that is - assuming I can find it again.
Meet two more bewildered tourists trying to make their way to the same place as me. Follow them. And end up back at the hospital. After stopping several residents and begging a map off one family finally arrive at my resort, to discover I’m I’ve been allocated an apartment a mile up the road from the main building. Just as well I have a car. but it has a gorgeous view over the reef.
Niue is one of the world's largest coral islands, at ten miles by seven miles; it’s actually a coral atoll raised by volcanic upheavals, so there are caves and chasms above and below water, making for interesting diving.
Niue’s highest point is only 223 feet (about 68 meters) above sea level.
Niue has no recognised strategic trade significance and was not annexed by a European power until 1900, long after most other Pacific islands. It was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1774, but he was refused landing by the inhabitants on three different attempts. He then named Niue ‘Savage Island’. Missionaries from the LMS (London Missionary Society) established Christianity in 1846. Niue chiefs gained British Protectorate status in 1900, and in 1901 Niue was annexed to New Zealand.
Niue is a small island nation in the South Pacific Ocean.
Niue has been in free association with New Zealand since 1974, (so the currency is the New Zealand Dollar) and government follows a Westminster-style rule with a 20 member assembly. The Premier is selected by the House and the Premier then selects 3 other members for Cabinet posts.
More Niueans live in New Zealand than in Niue: 1500 on Niue, 24000 in New Zealand.
The local literature also tells me, boasts no crime, no traffic lights, no queues and no crowds. As far as I can see this information is entirely accurate.
Niue is a raised coral island famous for its diving, snorkelling and coastal scenery, so I plan to take this in., driving my hire car round the island.
But my main reason for visiting is to try to swim with whales.
I manage to navigate safely back to the airport today, with plenty of time in hand. It’s on the same road as the New Zealand High Commission (very plush), the supermarket, the golf club, the bowling club and the rugby club.
The airport is packed with familiar Kiwi faces from around the island, including Julia and Marion and some islanders sporting their traditional travel garb of flower garlands in their hair. There are signs up forbidding the transport of uga on the plane. Honey and coconuts are, additionally, not allowed in the cabin.
The plane is an hour late departing. The pilot sighs and explains that some of the paperwork hasn’t been filed correctly and we have to wait. Back to Australia and Melbourne now.
Yesterday, I flew in from Norfolk Island via Auckland to visit Niue. Today, I'm up at 6 a.m. for my abortive whale trip. As it's still raining I resolve to track down the rental car man to repair my screeching wipers and then come back to catch up on sleep. Willie works out of his cafe in the main town, Alofi, fifteen minutes north. (I went here by mistake yesterday). Realise the map is ancient and the signposts are all out of date.
Finally, locate the Crazy Uga. (Uga is coconut crab - there’s even a designated road crossing for them, there are large numbers scuttling across at night). Willie is summonsed and fixes my wipers. He’s not sure how long I’m staying for, or what price he quoted, but we agree on 40 dollars a day and he tells me to pay when I feel like it. No paperwork, no license check, no credit card deposit. Discover I’m officially supposed to get a Niue driving licence, but the police station is closed for the weekend and I leave on Monday.
Decide I might as well have a look a little further up the coast while I’m out this way. Spend the next six hours pottering clockwise round the island. The local literature tells me that Niue is known as the Rock of the Pacific, because it sits atop 30 metre cliffs rising straight out of deep ocean. It is a typical Pacific island – a potholed road runs all round the coast. The road is edged with palm trees, dense low tropical vegetation and clusters of graves. Barking dogs chase the car whenever I drive through a village.
It’s not as neat as neighbouring Samoa; some of the houses are distinctly shabby, but the interest is definitely all by the sea. It seems that the whole coast is a mass of teeny waterfalls and cobalt pools, below the steep cliffs, the tide churning in and out of the coppery reef. And there are chasms (at least one a king’s bathing place), numerous caves and arches to explore. Not to mention the facsianting creations at the Hikulagi Sculpture Park-
Most of the sights are accessed down purpose built steps - some showing signs of wear, the way hewn out of the coral. I have to slide down algae covered rocks in unlit grottoes and wade out to sea, for the view of Aikaivai Cave. The tide is coming in, but it is just stunning. It is scooped out of the duskiest pink coral, complementing the deep turquoise of the pools superbly.
Right in the north of Niue, down a winding track is Matapa Chasm, a gorge, with crystal clear water, where kings, apparently, used to bathe. Adjacent, the path to the Niue signature tourist poster picture (see above), Talava Arches. This is an even more treacherous slippery assault course, over sharp and spiky coral; the final descent involves rope and very slimy rocks. Fortunately, I’m chaperoned by three young Kiwi ladies, Jo, Emma and Holly, who turn out to be outdoor instructors. Ideal for me, though I’m feeling they might have gone a little faster on their own. The reward is several interconnecting caverns, complete with stalactites and some very impressive arches forming windows of different shapes onto the reef. It’s a bit like Playschool. What can we see through the triangular window today children?
The rain hasn’t relented all day.
Tomorrow is Sunday. Monday is my last chance to swim with whales.
Arrive to visit Niue, from Norfolk Island, flying with the rain. Pockets of hardy tourists, mainly Kiwis are out walking and diving, but considerably larger numbers are huddled in the cafes in the main town, Alofi. And I discover I have brought the wrong underwater camera. This one doesn’t work and I've left my lovely Olympus Tough at home. And I’m booked to swim with whales tomorrow. Niue is famous for being one of the few places in the world where you can do this. Eventually, I persuade a diving company in a hut down the road form my hotel to rent me one. Initially, they say I can only borrow one if I go out with their boat, but then they relent. At a price.
A very early start, so I can’t sleep, what with massive jet lag now - 12 hours behind - and concern at having to be ready at six a.m for my trip with the whales. It’s rained all night. Go pick up my rental camera. Find the correct dive shop some five miles up the coast with some difficulty. Tour is cancelled because of the bad weather. It won't be fun, they say and there is little chance of encountering the whales. Rami, the boatman, says that the whales are elusive this year. They are six weeks late in arriving from the Antarctic and there have only been a few spotted so far.
The first dive shop is still venturing, out, but it seems they didn’t ever have a swimming spot available, just a watching slot (only six swimmers at a time are allowed near the whales). Ask for a refund.
Today, I can see patches of blue sky out of my window. And there is a hump backed whale blowing and cavorting with some spinner dolphins, just off the reef.
I’ve made the mistake of trying to boil eggs for my breakfast. I discovered the absence of a saucepan too late. Things are not going well in the shallow frying pan - I don’t have any oil either. I could be here all day.. ....
It is Sunday and everyone on South Pacific islands goes to church and relaxes on Sunday. (The ladies are wearing their special hats). All the shops in Niue are shut (I’m not convinced they were open yesterday) and no boating is allowed. Even the dogs are taking it easy.
The place to be seen today is Willie’s Sundays only Washaway Café down on Avotele Beach. The island’s biggest smiliest entrepreneur is busy setting it up when I arrive – he just leaves the fish, salad and burgers out and relies on people to pay for what they take and write it into the book - prices on the wall. I venture into the water in the shallow bay here. It’s chilly, but incredibly clear and the coral and reef fish epitomises vivid. It looks as if someone’s ratcheted up the brightness filter on the television. There’s a really nasty current if you swim to the wrong side of the break in the reef though, and I beat a hasty retreat.
. I decamp to safer waters up at Limu Pools, with Kiwis Julie and Marion. Here there are natural swimming pools, again one with an arch, and a few iridescent fish tootling around. I swim in the biggest lagoon and scramble around the various viewpoints admiring the scenery.
The azure skies have tantalisingly come and gone several times. The whale has been taunting everyone, motoring up and down the coast, groups gathering to look out to sea, timing the gaps between his dives to try and predict his next appearance. And it hasn’t rained once
I’m making a last attempt to swim with the whales in Niue. It’s pushing things timewise, as my plane leaves at 2.30. We go in pursuit of yesterday’s sightings, but to no avail. I have to confess to being slightly relieved after Rami has warned us about not provoking mothers with calves, told us not to scream and instructed us to tear back to the boat pell-mell if they start to breach. ‘You don’t want one to fall on you’. However, there is snorkelling outside the reef. There are caves and channels dotting its length, and we weave in and out of one in single file. The water is still quite choppy. Turtles meander gracefully past and there are clusters of banded sea snakes. These are unique to Niue, very poisonous, but not remotely aggressive. (I’m told). They drift aimlessly past.
The bays are teeming with dolphins and we get to swim with them instead. You jump in and grip a rope tow at the prow of the boat. It’s one of those unforgettable experiences – 30 dolphins jumping and diving effortlessly around me in the clear blue water. They are definitely inviting us to join in, peeling off and returning, though it's not very easy to take photos with one hand.
Now, I have to race to the airport for my flight to Melbourne.
Mayotte was incorporated into various sultanates before finally being sold to the French by a Malagasy sultan in 1841. Together with Comoros the islands were known as Mayotte and Dependencies.
The department status of Mayotte is recent and the region remains, by a significant margin, the poorest in France. Mayotte is nevertheless much more prosperous than the other countries of the Mozambique Channel, making it a major destination for illegal immigration.
Mayotte is surrounded by a typical tropical coral reef. It consists of a large outer barrier reef, enclosing one of the world's largest and deepest lagoons, followed by a fringing reef, interrupted by many mangroves. All Mayotte waters are included in the National Marine Park, and many places are natural reserves. So water sports are the order of the day. Diving, snorkelling, or looking out for marine life: whales, dolphins and turtles.
There are beautiful beaches and some great French cooking - at a price.
A two hour domestic flight in a Dreamliner (it's going on to Paris), from Reunion back across Madagascar (I can see my old haunt Nosy Be beneath us) to Mayotte. I’m reading the airline magazine and I’ve discovered, to my astonishment, that Mayotte consists of more than one island and we’re actually landing on the smaller of the main two. It’s called Petit-Terre or Pamanzi, and the other is Grand-Terre or Maore, which can only be reached by ferry. None of this was mentioned on my itinerary. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to begin another adventure.
The traffic is heavy and we have to queue some time for the fifteen minute crossing to the capital, Mamoudzou, before heading for my hotel on the southerly tip of the main island. It’s already obvious that I’m back in Africa proper. Mayotte has only been a French departement since 2011 and the infrastructure is way behind that of Réunion. The roads are poor and it’s a little unkempt. But it has heaps more atmosphere. This is a Moslem country and the women dress accordingly, but with ultimate style. The prints are bright and striking, the jewellery chic and the headdresses ornate and varied. The make-up, for the most part is also immaculate, but it’s commonplace also to smear your face with yellow sandalwood. This is considered a sign of beauty, as well as contributing to the quality of one’s skin.
It’s dark when I arrive at my hotel, which sounds promising in the write-up. The restaurant is open air, on the beach, waves lapping and my bungalow faces the sea surrounded by tall palm trees and baobabs. The hotel website also promises a plethora of turtles and lemurs.
I’m up early in search of the advertised fauna, but there's no sign of animal life. I’m met by my guide, Hanifah, who informs me that the lemurs like to sleep in and they will definitely be around later. Now, an island tour. The countryside is dominated by a huge pyramidal volcanic peak, Mont Choungui, and banana plantations and there are a succession of views across turquoise bays. It’s a real shame that the lovely beaches and roadsides are strewn with litter.
There’s nothing of huge importance to see, but it’s a fun outing. The driver, Rachidi, is cynically amusing. He tells me, in French, that he has four children and is a Moslem, but hasn’t got married yet, as he is still trying to learn how to get on with their mother. ‘C’est tres difficile…’ . There are restored original style mud houses, complete with graffiti, at Banga, beneath the pyramid peak. Musical Plage is renowned for a gigantic baobab tree and named because this is where the Madagascan immigrants first brought music to the Moslem population. It is indeed musical. There are sounds of drumming emanating from a house across the road, so we wander in and are invited to listen whilst a band rehearse their forthcoming gigs.
Down the road the the Salt Museum, where the ladies still scrape up the top layer of salty soil, left by the tide retreating across the flats. This is then added to water and filtered (I remember doing this experiment at school) before being evaporated in flat pans over log fires. We stop at a corner café for a peek in. Rachidi’s sisters and mother all live around here he says (so he has a house on the other side of the island) and there’s a very famous singer (wearing a leather beret) drinking coffee, I’m told. So I dutifully take his photograph.
Next, a botanical garden (sadly it’s not really flowering season) and lunch in the ylang-ylang plantation area (the flowers are plucked on Saturdays and distilled on Sundays.) The final stop is at Sada, the second city and ex-capital, where gorgeously attired ladies weave palms to make idiosyncratic hats and baskets. They are adamant that they won’t have their photos taken. This is the response around most of the island - it’s frustrating when they look so incredible.
Back at the hotel Hanifah is proved right. The lemurs appear in abundance. They are not indigenous, they are the brown variety, imported from Madagascar. The hotel website has suggested that guests encourage them with bananas. However, confusingly there are signs posted warning that they should not be fed and referring to them as maquis. Anyway, Rachidi ignores the latter and they venture pop-eyed along the branches of the trees to retrieve the papaya he has bought, the juice dribbling down their chins. There are also scores of fruit bats (flying foxes) hanging above the lemurs.
As suggested, the hotel is idyllically situated. It’s sad that the service doesn’t match. I struggled with French attitude in Réunion, but here it seems that if I am stupid enough not to be fluent in French then I deserve to be ignored. Menus are banged down. I’m tutted at, mocked if I don’t understand and generally treated like a gross intruder. I’m eating dinner with a couple from Hamburg, Barbara and Fred, who confirm that they are receiving similar treatment from most of the staff, even though Barbara’s French is very proficient. I’ve heard of behaviour like this historically in mainland France, but never encountered it myself. It’s an odd way to treat paying guests. It’s also even more expensive than Réunion. Set dinner - 35 euros.
I’m imagining a quiet cruise around the lagoon, basking in the sun and admiring the views (another one boasting to be the world’s largest but I believe that’s New Caledonia). What I’ve got is speedboat trip zooming along with eleven French twenty-somethings. The boat’s alternative existence is as a dive boat, so the seats are in two columns facing forwards. I’m sitting pillion style (which is not at all comfortable) behind a bearded young man called Julian.
The boat captain speaks to me in reasonable English to tell me that he has no intention of repeating everything he says for me, as he hasn’t the time. In fact he doesn’t say anything else in English at all. That’s okay, I won’t find the time for a tip either. Needless to say I can’t follow much of what he says, but I get the general gist and he certainly hasn’t mentioned life jackets.
We spend most of the journey bouncing over the waves (it’s a fresh breeze today, as the forecasts say) searching for whales and dolphins (les baleines et les dauphins). The whales and their calves are very easy to spot. After we have pursued a mother and calf for some time they obtain their revenge by emerging right alongside the boat. The calf and I are engaging eye to eye. I’m relieved they haven’t tried to come right on-board.
Les dauphins are more elusive, but are eventually discovered, offering their usual fascinating aerial displays around the prow of the craft, before the formation loops away. Another case of so long and thanks for the fish...
We visit a couple of pretty islots, with classic white sands, before finishing with some snorkelling. It’s a pretty drift reef, but most of the twenty-somethings prefer to stay aboard and smoke. I don’t think they want to get their designer gear wet. I’m not asking what they’re smoking - it’s roll ups. My shorts have gone AWOL, which is annoying and no-one is owning up. I don’t suppose the beautiful people have pinched them - they’re only Dorothy Perkins. Perhaps they’re still on the islot. Unfortunately, my bungalow key is in the back pocket.
There are indeed plenty of turtles out in the bay, just in front of my bungalow. They are happy to ignore me as they, and their attendant scavenger remora fish, feed. There’s also a very rewarding little reef 100 metres or so off the shore. All in all, it’s an excellent beach on which to park my sunbed. I’m adopted by a group of young policemen; ‘Cops on the Beach’ they say, flirting and posing for selfies with me, in front of their girlfriends.
Back on the ferry to Petit-Terre and the airport. It’s the end of the holidays in Mayottte and the first day back at school, so I’ve had to leave early, in case the roads are congested. There are indeed some grands bouchons. This is partly because some of the roads are closed. The French education minister is visiting to supervise the big day.
I’m on my way to my last stop this trip, the Comoros Islands. Mayotte is actually part of the Comoros group, but I’m routed back to Réunion (the other side of Madagascar) and out again. I inquired about this when I got my itinerary and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why I can’t go direct. There are three flights to Comoros on the departure boards, some of them with the same airline. Not for the first time I’m bemused and not a little frustrated. Moroni, here I come - eventually.
From Kruger National Park over the border to Chokwe in Mozambique. And the tour has deteriorated somewhat. The jeeps have jolted over what must be the worst roads in Africa and that’s saying something. The ruts seem to be feet deep and we’ve threatened to tip right over on more than one occasion. Our esteemed leader’s preferred method of driving is full-on throttle. A sports bra is a necessity.
Stopping to view game he understands – some of the time. He doesn’t always see it. Culture not so much. ‘You want to look at a village? Why? They’re not very nice’. It’s true the people are poor, but we’re not in a position to make informed judgements about the village experience for ourselves. The camera lens is in distinct danger,as I try and balance it against the jeep window, as we career past the little huts. I secure more fuzzy pictures of mud and trees, to add to my collection. The villagers aren’t exactly waving us in, but there haven’t been any friendly overtures made on our part either.
Skirting the edges of the national capital, Maputo, the roads lined with street markets and more typical villages, round wooden huts with palm roofs. The bay on which Maputo stands was first settled as a fishing village by ancient Tsonga people. It was named Lourenço Marques, after the Portuguese navigator. The modern (but now dilapidated) city that developed was based around a Portuguese fort. Post Mozambican independence in 1975, this port city became the national capital and was renamed Maputo, after a local Tsonga chief.
Along the coast to Inhambane, which Vasco da Gama named it Terra de Boa Gente or 'Land of the Good People'. There's a port city, but also beautiful beaches, great reefs and excellent large marine life. We’re told that this region is one of the best diving and snorkelling spots in the world – with manta rays, reef sharks and in season humpback whales and whale sharks. The fishing boats are as picturesque as it gets, with curved masts and colourful sails fashioned out of grain sacks.
But the weather isn’t kind and it isn’t really beach weather. We do get to see the whales and dolphins (they’re in season), but it’s a choppy ride and using a camera in our inflatable is life threatening. All the photos are blurred and most of them seem to have missed the whales entirely. Or there's an odd fin poking into a corner. Snorkelling is off.
We’ve latterly also discovered that the tour hasn’t exactly been planned ahead. We arrive at one ‘hotel’ to find that it’s disappeared.
‘It used to be here just here I'm sure,’ exclaims our Great Leader.
‘Oh that went in the hurricane last year,’ the locals inform us.
Tofo, on the renowned Barra Beach area was historically a small coastal fishing village. It's now a major (well fairly, this is Mozambique) international tourism centre, popular with South Africans in holiday time. It's also popular with the Portuguese. Portuguese is the national language, as this was a Portuguese colony, but only half of the population currently speak the language. Tofo has a small vegetable and African market, four diving centres, heaps of bars and restaurants and several lodges offering accommodation, from backpackers to five star luxury.
I’ve booked a single room, and it's an understatement to say I'm disappointed when I’m allocated a shabby dormitory style dwelling, replete with cobwebs. Enough is enough. I’ve already spotted the over-water bungalows a mile or so up the peninsula at Flamingo Bay and I sign off tour for several eminently comfortable days. The local tour guide is amenable. He whisks me back and forth on the back of his motor scooter, making suggestions along the way as to how I might like to spend the rest of my time. I pretend I haven’t heard. It’s a restful break. Though my postcards never make it home. I was probably too trusting in handing them to the hotel receptionist, along with the money for the stamps.
Vilankulo (or Vilanculos) is the Mozambican capital of water sports. It is named after local tribal chief Gamela Vilankulo Mukoke, Some of the "bairros" (suburbs) are also named after his sons There are all grades of hotels because there is yet another wonderful beach here. But the main attraction is its proximity to The Bazaruto Archipelago - a group of six islands, with more gorgeous sand and reef: it comprises the islands of Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque, Banque, Santa Carolina and Shell.
Next stop Mauritius.
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